restricted access Prostitution, Incest, and Venereal Disease in Ulysses' "Nausicaa"
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Prostitution, Incest, and Venereal Disease in Ulysses' "Nausicaa"

In the thirteenth episode of Ulysses, as Gerty MacDowell sits on Sandymount Strand, staring pensively out over Dublin Bay, the quiet atmosphere that normally would inspire and accompany a young woman's twilight dreams about romance is conspicuously full of clattering interruptions. The bratty Caffrey twins bicker loudly over the best way to build a sand castle. Baby Board man talks nonsensically to his sister, Edy, and then soils his diaper with great pride and fanfare. The men's voices from a nearby temperance retreat repeatedly remind Gerty of the importance of chastity and feminine self-discipline. And, of course, standing off in the dimming distance, is Leopold Bloom, who—despite the purposefully hushed quality of his exploits—disturbs the peaceful setting in his own peculiar way. In the midst of this noise, it is a wonder young Gerty can get a thought together at all.

These physical disturbances add one sort of clutter, but Gerty is a young woman who must also navigate through an enormous amount of cultural noise. Although it may travel along more subliminal channels than the disturbances of her immediate surroundings, this type of noise and the effect it has on Gerty is extremely important. Even if such cultural information registers only on the lowest levels, it greatly contributes to the construction of her personality. This cultural noise underlies her behavior, conditions her perceptions, and molds her into the young woman she is.

Delineating and deciphering the exact nature of these cultural influences—where they come from, how they operate on Gerty, and how she responds to them—has been one of the central issues for critical readers of "Nausicaa." Spurred on by the pleasant antagonism of a highly self-aware text, almost all critics at some point must also ask Bloom's question, "But who was Gerty?"1 [End Page 84] Early critics of "Nausicaa" hesitated to see the young girl as anything more than a defenseless object of ridicule—the whipping girl for Joyce's vendetta against the "namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy (alto la!) style"—but more recent critics have been willing to give both Gerty MacDowell and James Joyce a little more credit.2 Instead of seeing Joyce as a sadistic creator, these later readings work from the assumption that "Nausicaa" is the work of an astute cultural observer whose "portrait of Gerty MacDowell . . . provides an incisive criticism of a media-controlled self-image."3 Gerty is not simply a naive and sentimental girl to be mocked, but a complex personality existing at the intersection of numerous powerful cultural influences. She is the product of the sentimental romances she reads, the advertisements she sees, the women's magazines she thumbs through absentmindedly, the cultural tidbits she has subconsciously consumed at the movie house, and the second-hand knowledge she has garnered about pornography.4

Despite these critics' varied theoretical starting points and wide-ranging conclusions, all of these readings—even if they do so tacitly—make two important points about the components of Gerty's identity that should inform any thoughtful reading of "Nausicaa." The first is that questions about Gerty's identity are primarily questions about her sexuality. Based on the overall nature of her thoughts and the episode's central event, it is easy to understand why this is so. The second, and more important, commonality among these critics is the crucial understanding that, in order for us to know who Gerty is, we must have a comprehensive knowledge of her surroundings.

It is difficult, however, to decide exactly where these surroundings begin and end. A good number of commentators have limited their discussion of the most formative influences on Gerty to those forces with which she consciously interacts. We know from her thoughts, for instance, that she goes to the movies, looks at advertisements, and reads Maria Cummins. Consequently, [End Page 85] many of these readings center on the first part of "Nausicaa," which focuses its attention on the young girl's thoughts. This critical move—again, often made tacitly—ultimately ends up splitting the episode, and while these critics may not go so far as to...